Five Big Holes in the Non-Boxer Wings of the Boxing Hall of Fame

The International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, NY, sorts inductees into five categories. Fighters are classified as “Modern,” “Old Timer,” or “Pioneer.” There are two divisions for non-boxers. The “Non-Participant” category is open to “those who have made contributions to the sport apart from their roles as boxers and observers” (e.g., promoters, trainers, referees, matchmakers, administrators and press agents). The “Observer” wing recognizes “print and media journalists, publishers, writers, historians, and artists.”

Promoters Klaus-Peter Kohl and Lorraine Chargin and ring announcer Johnny Addie are the newest Non-Participants. They will be formally inducted during Hall of Fame Induction Weekend, an annual event held each year in the month of June. Chargin and Addie are going into the Hall posthumously. Broadcasters Steve Albert and Jim Gray were chosen in the Observer category.

With the addition of the newbies, the two non-boxer wings now have 146 members; 106 Non-Participants and 40 Observers.

In recent years, these categories have been swelled by some curious picks. The vote counts remain secret, an invitation to “fudging” (a story for another day). With each questionable pick, the omission of others far more worthy becomes that much more disconcerting. Here are five that hopefully won’t be overlooked indefinitely.

Bat Masterson

Akin to his great friend and fellow boxing aficionado Wyatt Earp, there’s been a lot of hogwash written about Bat Masterson. The famed western lawman, ever-ready to regale a gullible young writer with a fanciful yarn, encouraged the malarkey. The six-shooter he proudly displayed had 27 notches on the handle, but Bat shot and killed three people at the most, not counting that poor saloon woman caught in the crossfire.

There’s nothing phony, however, about his IBHOF credentials.

Those who only know Bat Masterson as the lawman who “cleaned up Dodge City” are surprised to learn that he spent the last decade of his life in New York City where he covered boxing for the New York Morning Telegraph, eventually becoming the paper’s sports editor. A fearless reporter, he wasn’t shy about exposing corruption in boxing or taking a fighter to task for rendering a poor effort.

Prior to his New York days, Masterson was involved in prizefighting in many capacities. He promoted fights in Denver. He refereed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of matches including two world title fights. He was Jake Kilrain’s timekeeper when Kilrain fought John L. Sullivan in 1889 and Jim Corbett’s timekeeper when Corbett fought Sullivan in 1892. He was in the small contingent at the bizarre heavyweight title elimination match between Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher near Langtry, Texas in 1896. In the papers, his role was described as “master of ceremonies and chief sergeant-at-arms.”

Masterson died at his desk in 1921 at age sixty-seven. The honorary pallbearers at his funeral included Damon Runyon, Tex Rickard, William Muldoon, Hype Igoe, and Tom O’Rourke, all five of whom would be enshrined in the IBHOF. The poor fellow reposing there in the casket ought to be in there too.

Robert Edgren

The New York World, a Pulitzer paper, was the first metropolitan daily with a separate sports department. From 1904 to 1919, the sports editor of the evening edition was Robert Edgren. A triple threat, Edgren was an editor, a columnist, and a sports cartoonist. Abetted by the power of syndication, he likely had the largest readership of any sportswriter in the country.

In common with many sportswriters of the era, Edgren was a noted athlete. At the University of California, he set records in the shot put and discus. Before leaving the Bay Area, he befriended Jim Corbett and James J. Jeffries and sparred with both. He was one of the sparring partners that Corbett brought to Carson City to help him prepare for his 1897 match with Fitzsimmons.

Bob Edgren wrote about many sports but was partial to boxing. He came to the fore in an era when prizefights were illegal in most jurisdictions and promoters in New York were thwarted from promoting their shows with billboards and such because of the “club membership law.” As much as anyone, he kept the sport in the mainstream until the shackles were lifted.

Edgren was Tex Rickard’s first choice to referee the historic Dempsey-Carpentier fight, the first fight with a million dollar gate. Edgren, who had no experience in this vein, respectfully declined (a moot point as Jersey City political boss Frank Hague had the final say).

Edgren continued to write about boxing after returning to California where he worked on his golf game as he lived out his days, winning several regional tournaments. He served for a brief time on the California Athletic Commission.

(Note: The sports pages of the New York Evening World are an invaluable resource for anyone interested in learning more about boxing in the U.S. during the first two decades of the last century. Thanks to the Chronicling America project, a joint venture of the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Arts, anyone can access them for free on the Internet.)

National Digital Newspaper Program

Dan Tobey

Counting the newcomer Johnny Addie, New York’s leading ring announcer in the days when Madison Square Garden was the Mecca of boxing and the sport was a staple on radio and on the new medium of television, five ring announcers have plaques in the Hall of Fame. The others are Joe Humphreys (who wore other hats; he was the co-manager of Terry McGovern), Michael Buffer, and the two Jimmy Lennons, the elder of which was enshrined last year. They were all solid picks and Dan Tobey belongs right there with them.

Born in the little town of Ulysses, Nebraska, Tobey moved to Los Angeles as a young man and quickly became an important cog in the LA prizefighting machinery. He announced fights at such storied venues as Naud’s Junction and Vernon, and was the MC for the first-ever boxing and wrestling shows at Hollywood Legion Stadium, the first iteration of which opened in 1919, and the hallowed Olympic Auditorium (1925). When both arenas were going full blast, Tobey was a busy beaver, typically working four shows each week.

When Tobey was first getting started, the prerequisite for a ring announcer was a strong set of lungs. This was before the advent of electronic voice amplification. What little footage of him exists is found in old movies such as “The Prizefighter and the Lady,” the 1933 MGM release starring Max Baer and Myra Loy. What stands out in these clips is that he was far more animated than modern ring announcers who are compelled to stand like wooden soldiers as they look into the TV camera. Although hardly svelte, Tobey had a bounce in his step. He drew the audience to him with his body language as well as the words that came out of his mouth.

Dan Tobey’s announcing career spanned parts of six decades. When he retired in 1952, he literally passed the torch to Jimmy Lennon Sr. Lennon was the master of ceremonies at Tobey’s farewell banquet.

Dan Tobey article published on Dec. 20, 2016

George Barton

A boxer, a reporter, a ring official, a boxing commissioner, a reformer, George Barton, “Mr. Boxing” in Minnesota, did it all. That he has yet to be recognized by the IBHOF is an egregious oversight.

In 1904, at age 19, Barton won a 6-round decision over barnstorming Terry McGovern. Terrible Terry’s best days were then behind him, but McGovern was still a major player in the featherweight division.

The match with McGovern is one of only four pro fights listed for Barton at BoxRec, but there were dozens more of the bootleg variety. Minnesota’s anti-prizefighting law was haphazardly enforced, but the hassle of circumventing it led Barton to hang up his gloves and abort a promising career.

The year before he fought the fabled McGovern, the teenage Barton was named the assistant sports editor of the Minneapolis Daily News. His career in journalism would span parts of six decades.

For many years, Barton was a boxing instructor at the Minneapolis YMCA. From about 1915 to about 1930, he was Minnesota’s top referee. His assignments included the 1918 match between Jack Dempsey and Billy Miske and the 1925 match between Gene Tunney and Harry Greb. He later had a long run as the head of the Minnesota Boxing Commission.

In 1952 and 1953, Barton was the president of the National Boxing Association, the forerunner of the World Boxing Association (WBA), the oldest of the sport’s four major sanctioning bodies. During his tenure, the organization introduced the 10-point scoring system, which would eventually become the standard worldwide, and the mandatory 8-count following a knockdown. This important safety measure gave referees precious extra seconds to determine whether a fighter was fit to continue.

In 1961, Barton was in the forefront of the effort to create a federal boxing commission. The effort stalled but had an important side benefit as it curbed the infiltration of the racketeering element. Eight years earlier, he was the recipient of the Boxing Writers Association of America’s James J. Walker Award for long and meritorious service, the most prestigious of the annual BWAA awards.

Ham Fisher

If a poll were taken to name the world’s most famous fictional boxer, Rocky Balboa would win in a landslide. His creator Sylvester Stallone was ushered into the IBHOF in the Observers category in 2011. Oddly, the creator of a fictional boxer who was even more famous has yet to get the call.

Ham Fisher, who died in 1955 at age 55, created the comic strip boxer Joe Palooka. At its peak during the 1940s, the strip ran in more than 800 papers and had more than 50 million readers.

Virtuous to a fault and completely without guile, Joe Palooka, a country boy, the son of a coal miner, was a paragon of innocence in the Machiavellian world of prizefighting. While he was merely a character in the funny pages, one could argue that he was the greatest ambassador for boxing that the sport has ever known.

Joe Palooka’s imaginary ring battles were morality plays with stereotyped heroes and villains. During World War II, he was enlisted to fight the Nazi menace. His face on recruiting posters and his exploits in the comic strip were credited with stimulating enlistments and the sale of war bonds. It has been speculated that the term “GI Joe” originated with him.

Ham Fisher’s comic strip spawned 12 feature-length Joe Palooka films, a short-lived radio series, a short-lived TV sitcom, comic books, a board game, and sundry items for young boys such as the Joe Palooka metal lunchbox.

The comic strip wasn’t phased out until 1984, by which time many newspapers had discontinued their comic strips or sharply curtailed the number that they ran. Joe Palooka wasn’t indomitable, but he outlived his creator Ham Fisher by almost three decades.

I’ve been down this road before, beating the drum for Ham Fisher, a dour man who had few friends to take up the cudgel.

Ham Fisher story that ran on the old forum on Dec. 27, 2013.

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It’s plain that the selection process in the non-boxer categories has been compromised by economic considerations. Inductees long dead don’t have much value. The sands of time have erased their name recognition among all but a handful of boxing enthusiasts. Acknowledging someone like George Barton would rectify an oversight, but it wouldn’t pump up attendance at Hall of Fame Induction Weekend where fight fans gather to rub elbows and take selfies with active and recently retired boxers and other ring personalities.

The International Boxing Hall of Fame cannot survive without the annual June bash which reportedly draws as many tourists to Canastota as in all the other days of the year combined. A good turnout is deemed essential to renewing the annual grant that comes from the state treasury.

As I have written before, I have yet to meet someone who attended Hall of Fame Induction Weekend and wasn’t keen to go back and do it again. The entire community gets behind this four-day jamboree to create a memorable experience. The dignitaries in attendance, so I am told, are invariably approachable and friendly. Kudos to IBHOF head honcho Ed Brophy and his colleagues and the townsfolk for putting on a good show.

However, the IBHOF has a higher mission which is to paint an accurate picture of the history of boxing. To this end, it’s imperative that the unidentified gate-keepers are well-versed in that history and free of bias, or else certain wings of the Hall of Fame are doomed to take on the coloration of a good ol’ boys network.

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